It can be hard to believe that Rockaway Beach, where the only soundtrack is the squawk of seagulls and the crash of waves, is even a part of busy New York City. Kevin Kash knows that better than anyone.
Kash grew up in Brooklyn as the son of a Teamster and spent his summers surfing in the Breezy Point section of Queens' Rockaway peninsula. Back then his Bay Ridge friends didn't know what to make of it. “I may as well have said I went to Mars,” he says of their reactions. They weren't interested in many activities beyond the boundaries of their neighborhood.
These days Kash teaches for New York Surf School—which, like a handful of other companies, offers surf lessons out in Rockaway Beach—and has seen a new crop of New Yorkers and visitors embrace the possibilities of their coastal city.
Most of New York Surf School's students “live in Brooklyn, but grew up somewhere else,” and are excited to hear that New York City offers a place to catch waves—usually on the order of 1 to 2 feet, though storms can result in bigger swells. In that spirit, we brought Kathleen Fox—our colleague and another Brooklynite, who has done plenty of swimming but never so much as stepped on a surfboard—out to New York Surf School's sky-blue tent near Beach 69th Street to see what a lesson could do for a novice.
Kash, a laid-back dude who left behind an acting career to teach surfing full time and “pay forward the stoke,” starts by laying out the basics on shore. The merits of this approach would become clear once our subject ventured out into the chaos of the churning ocean. “If I snowboard,” Kash says, “no matter how many times I go down the hill, it'll be the same hill when I go back up.” But with the shifting energy of the Atlantic, “you never ride the same wave twice.”
Step one with Kash is “wiring the beach”—taking in information. This is what he does every time he's about to get on his board. This means looking to the water, gauging the height of the waves and seeing which way other surfers are drifting. “I want to go in with a plan and know where I'm going,” he says. He suggests choosing a guidepost on the land—like your beach towel—and making sure to re-center with that landmark after each wave to avoid getting lost or ending up drifting off into rock outcrops.
Next, he gets Fox acquainted with a new friend, the rubber-foam beginner surfboard he uses with first timers (the company can also set you up with a wetsuit). He familiarizes her with key terms: the front of the board is the nose, the top surface is the deck and the back is the tail. The leash is the rope that keeps your back foot tethered to the board.
Once that's out of the way, he moves on to a fundamental maneuver, the pop-up, which involves the transition from laying on the board to standing on it. He advises Fox as to the ideal balance of her body weight to avoid “pearling”—flopping headfirst into the water off the board—which is an inevitable part of surfing that he deems “funny when it's not you.” He also emphasizes safety precautions, like keeping a grip on the board at all times and not just dropping it into the water in front of you before laying on it. “Nobody wants to get hit in the face with your board,” says Kash. And if the fins on the bottom of the board catch your skin, you could end up needing stitches.
After having covered the basics, Kash offers words of wisdom: in the movies “they always show a surfer standing up—but how did they get on that wave?” In reality, he says, surfing is 80% paddling and only 20% riding the surf: “In two hours, if I collectively ride waves for two minutes, I'm euphoric.”
Long story short: Fox ventured out into the water with Kash, who spotted waves for her—a skill better left to seasoned surfers—and shouted “up!” when it was time for her to do the pop-up. After more than a half-dozen false starts that sent her flying into turbulent water and made her feel like she was “inside a washing machine,” Kash's pupil found her balance and was soon regularly coasting low on the board as waves took her out to the shore.
Aside from the day's larger-than-normal waves, this was apparently a fairly typical first-time surfing experience. “It's very Pavlovian,” Kash says of building up the muscle memory that results in proper pop-ups and the ability to balance on a board all the way to shore. “It becomes as natural as writing your name.”
New York Surf School's peak season runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day, but they offer lessons year-round (weather and conditions willing)—just contact them and ask.